Chemical leak imperils school in Hillside

Chemicals from an unknown source found their way into Walter O. Krumbiegel Middle School in Hillside

By Paul Greulich, Staff Writer

HILLSIDE— Just weeks after the discovery of hazardous chemicals below Walter O. Krumbiegel Middle School, officials have declared the building safe for students.

While school is opening as planned this week, months of remediation efforts remain ahead in order to remove the contaminants from the site.

Testing by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection uncovered low levels of the chemicals TCE and PCE, underneath the building itself as well as under nearby houses and commercial structures. These chemicals are commonly used in dry cleaning.

The source of the contamination remains unclear.

According to information posted on the Board of Education website, it is presumed that children and adults who spent time in the middle school were exposed to PCE. However, how much each person breathed in depends on how much time they spent at the school. It is unknown how much PCE was in the air before testing was done.

Based on the current indoor air data collected at the school, the Department of Health would not expect adverse health effects to occur at these levels.

Health Officer Warren Hehl said these substances can be deadly in extremely high concentrations. However, he described the chemical presence as “miniscule but above the reaction level.”

“It’s my understanding that based on the levels, there is minimal-to-no risk to the occupants of the school,” Hehl said.

Walter O. Krumbiegel Middle School serves students in grades six through eight.

Board of Education President George Cooke said Health Department officials took great care in ensuring the safety of the building, which houses just under 600 students.

“As of right now, they are sure everything is safe,” said Cooke, whose own  daughter attends the school.

The problem first came to the attention of school officials on Aug. 15 or 16 when the state notified them of a possible problem. Test results confirmed these suspicions about a week later, and an emergency meeting of the Board of Education was held last week to discuss the situation. State officials were present to answer questions.

HillsidePTAmember Cherrena E. Rawls was among those at the emergency meeting.

“I think they have it under control,” Rawls said. “My daughter goes there and I’m very concerned about her safety.”

Rawls said she has not noticed any panic or fear on the part of her fellow parents.

Cooke said school officials were surprised at the low turnout at the emergency meeting, with only “five or six” parents present.

“We expected more people to show up, to be honest. I’m kind of disappointed in the lack of parents showing up,” Cooke said. “I’ve gotten more calls from residents than parents of students.”

Cooke said the major concerns expressed by parents involved the safety of the school’s drinking water and the impact of the remediation on students and curriculum.

Cooke said the school draws its drinking water from a separate source that is safe from the PCE. Remediation will be done on weekends and evenings to minimize the impact on education.

“Most of the work will be done when the students aren’t there, whenever possible,” Cooke said.

Short term remediation efforts are presently being taken to ensure the building is safe to open to students. These include sealing two crawlspaces with a heavy vinyl material to keep vapors from leaking. Cracks in the basement floor have also been sealed. Portable air filters are being used in areas with higher levels of contamination.

The longer-term remediation is more complicated, involving drilling holes in the floors to install a system of tubes that will route the harmful vapors over the school and out into the atmosphere. This is similar to a radon elimination system and is expected to take at least two months.

Cooke said the state will pay the cost of the remediation, both for the school and any homeowners impacted by the contamination. Cooke said typically the DEP determines the source of the contamination and charges whatever company or entity is responsible. However, since the source has yet to be determined, the DEP is shouldering the cost itself.

Hehl said the chemicals could have flowed under the school from another location. The DEP plans to do testing in the surrounding area that may determine the source of the contamination.

Paul Greulich can be reached at

908-686-7700 ext. 121, or at thelocalsource@gmail.com.

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